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CODE OF ETHICS

All engineering societies have a code of ethics for the guidance of their membership bodies. In each case it is a code based upon other and older codes, codes long in practice among professional men, such as lawyers and doctors. It is a code built up on Christian principles, as it should be, and rarely is it ignored among men of the profession. To do unto others as you would have others do unto you is the basis of its precepts, though more concretely it aims to guide the engineer in his business intercourse with other men in such a way as to give all an equal chance without transgressing the law. The so-called building codes in effect in large cities are intended to hold engineers to restrictions for the greatest good of the greatest number, and the code of ethics in practice among each of the engineering professions likewise was devised toward this end. There seems to be need for it.

Perhaps by pointing out where engineers sometimes transgress, the writer more effectively can indicate the need of a code and the principles of which the engineering code of ethics consists. Even to-day there are engineers digressing from the path indicated by the professional body, though in such a way as to benefit still by the protection of the law, and to be not openly susceptible to admonition from the engineering societies’ committees. Engineers of this stamp at best are but tricksters. Actually, they should be debarred from practice, just as the legal fraternity takes effective action against members of the bar who go outside the pale, though nothing is ever done to engineers. Engineering organizations in this regard are weak. The man’s name should at least be posted, or, better still, published in the society’s bulletin, so that the fraternity at large could know, and, knowing, could warn men with capital to invest the trickster’s especial prey for its own welfare.

There was an engineer brought to the attention of the writer whose activities were devoted to securing for his clients men of no mechanical knowledge who yet wanted something done by machinery. A manufacturer of paper dolls, say, having entered upon this phase of manufacturing only because he had money to invest and not because he was interested in mechanics, would see the need in his plant for additional mechanical devices to cut down manufacturing costs. The engineer to whom I have reference would find this type of manufacturer his particular “meat,” because of the man’s ignorance of mechanics, and, after clinching him with a contract drawn up by the engineer’s lawyer, would undertake to devise for this manufacturer a perpetual-motion machine, if that happened to be what the manufacturer wanted. The engineer conducted a machine-shop in connection with his “consulting” office, where, at a dollar an hour for the use of his machine-tools, he would “develop” his ideas, as passed upon by the manufacturer who knew no more of construction or the reading of mechanical drawings than he did of the chicanery of the engineer, and in this way roll up the costs against the unfortunate. In the end the engineer might and might not produce a satisfactory working machine. There was nothing in the contract about this save only as it protected the engineer. What was indeed produced was a list of costs for the development often of several designs of a given idea that to say the least were heartrending.

Then there is the engineer who for a consideration will bear false testimony against his neighbor, or his neighbor’s ox. This happens most frequently in municipal traction or lighting wars, set before tribunals under the caption of “The People vs. the S. S. Street Railway Company,” or in a battle of alleged infringement of patent rights. There are engineering experts, just as there are legal experts, who deem it within their code of ethics to address themselves and their energies toward the refutation of such claims, however wrong or right these claims may be. Engineering is an exact science. It is based on principles hardly refutable. Yet there are engineers who will and can confound these principles before a court of law in such manner as to win for their clients a decision of non-suit where the facts point glaringly to infringement in the matter of mechanics or to win for their clients a favorable decision in the matter of costs of maintenance and operation of a railway, in a case of this kind. As has been said, figures don’t lie, but figurers sometimes do.

Other instances of breach of engineering ethics, however otherwise secure from the clutches of the law, occur to the writer, but the two just cited ought to serve. At best, the topic is unpleasant and by no means indicates the character of the profession as a whole. Where there is one engineer who will perjure himself in the fashion as set forth above there are many thousands of engineers who could not be bought for this purpose at any amount of money. The profession of engineering is notably clean; its code of ethics rigidly adhered to; the rights of others, both in and out of the profession, regarded with something akin to sacredness. Engineers, as a body, for instance, possess a peculiarly rigid idea concerning themselves in relation to branches of the profession outside their own and yet intimately close to their own. Called in as an expert in the matter of heating and lighting a building, say, the heating and lighting engineer will rigidly confine himself to this phase of the engineering venture and to no other, however he may find his work again and again overlapping the work of the structural engineer or the industrial engineer phases concerning which he may possess important knowledge. He regards these things as strictly none of his business, and in doing so conserves the esteem and friendship of his confreres.

The code of ethics is a liberal one among the engineering groups. It has been laid down with an eye to fairness both for the practitioner and the client. Rigidly held to, it will admit of no engineer going far wrong in the practice of his profession, and, broken, will not land him in jail. It is presupposed that engineers are men of intelligence. A man of intelligence will hold himself to the spirit of the Ten Commandments if he would attain to success, and to the letter of them if he would be happy during the declining days of his life. Most engineers realize this and accept it as their every-day working creed. Life to them, like the medium through which they give expression to their ideas, is a matter of mathematics. Two steps taken in a wrong direction mean an equal number of steps forcibly retraced or the whole problem goes wrong. Engineers rarely take the two steps in the wrong direction. When they do take wrong steps they are quick to right them. For the code is always before their eyes.